Astrobiology August 2007, 7(4): 684-704
Abundant graphite particles occur in amphibolite-grade quartzite of the Archean–Paleoproterozoic Wutai Metamorphic Complex in the Wutaishan area of North China. Petrographic thin section observations suggest that the graphite particles occur within and between quartzite clasts and are heterogeneous in origin. Using HF maceration techniques, the Wutai graphite particles were extracted for further investigation. Laser Raman spectroscopic analysis of a population of extracted graphite discs indicated that they experienced a maximum metamorphic temperature of 513 ± 50°C, which is consistent with the metamorphic grade of the host rock and supports their indigenicity. Scanning and transmission electron microscopy revealed that the particles bear morphological features (such as hexagonal sheets of graphite crystals) related to metamorphism and crystal growth, but a small fraction of them (graphite discs) are characterized by a circular morphology, distinct marginal concentric folds, surficial wrinkles, and complex nanostructures. Ion microprobe analysis of individual graphite discs showed that their carbon isotope compositions range from −7.4% to −35.9% V-PDB (Vienna Pee Dee Belemnite), with an average of −20.3%, which is comparable to bulk analysis of extracted carbonaceous material.
The range of their size, ultrastructures, and isotopic signatures suggests that the morphology and geochemistry of the Wutai graphite discs were overprinted by metamorphism and their ultimate carbon source probably had diverse origins that included abiotic processes. We considered both biotic and abiotic origins of the carbon source and graphite disc morphologies and cannot falsify the possibility that some circular graphite discs characterized by marginal folds and surficial wrinkles represent deflated, compressed, and subsequently graphitized organic-walled vesicles. Together with reports by other authors of acanthomorphic acritarchs from greenschist-amphibolite-grade metamorphic rocks, this study suggests that it is worthwhile to examine carbonaceous materials preserved in highly metamorphosed rocks for possible evidence of ancient life.